Killing Raven (Wind River Reservation Series #9)by Margaret Coel
The discovery of a white man's body on the Wind River Reservation has Father John O'Malley trying to keep the peace. Meanwhile, the newly opened Great Plains Casino--with Vicky Holden as its in-house counsel--is fighting for its life against an angry group of protesters. And when Vicky stumbles across some disturbing evidence about the murder, she's suddenly caught in… See more details below
The discovery of a white man's body on the Wind River Reservation has Father John O'Malley trying to keep the peace. Meanwhile, the newly opened Great Plains Casino--with Vicky Holden as its in-house counsel--is fighting for its life against an angry group of protesters. And when Vicky stumbles across some disturbing evidence about the murder, she's suddenly caught in a dangerous game--with her own life at stake.
"Coel keeps her readers sweating, guessing and turning the pages."—Publishers Weekly
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The stars were bouncing across the windshield. Streaks of light that zigzagged through the blackness and plummeted downward before shooting up and out of sight. That was how it seemed, but Lela knew she was the one bouncing in the pickup. Her forehead hit the windshield, her right arm crashed against the door handle. A flash of pain, like a burning coal, gripped her elbow. Someone was screaming--God, she couldn't stop screaming, and her own voice sounded thin and frantic above the pounding beat of Korn and the rushing wind through the opened windows.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lela saw the dark pickup pull alongside them as Tommy stomped on the gas pedal. They roared ahead in a blur of chrome and flickering lights.
"Tommy, look out!" A utility pole rose like a granite tower into the headlights. Lela threw out both hands to brace herself against the dashboard. Tommy was pulling on the steering wheel, throwing his whole body toward the door. They swerved around the pole, which knocked and scraped down Lela's side. There was the screeching sound of metal ripped from metal.
And then they were alone, bouncing through the sagebrush and across the iron--hard ruts, headlights flashing over the empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and the rusted--out parts of old trucks scattered around the bluff. Going slower now, Tommy thumping both fists against the wheel and yelling out his window, roaring to the stars. "We did it! We beat the sonsabitches!"
Lela felt her heart jumping in rhythm with "Clown." She was still holding on to the dashboard, trying to get her breath. The air lodged in her lungs like a cork, the inside of her mouth felt as dry and rough as an old boot. She shifted around until she could see the headlights of the other pickup blinking over the bluff in the distance. Headed toward the river where the party was, and the whiskey and the weed.
She exhaled a long breath, letting out all the air that had been inside her. She felt giddy with relief. She wanted to scream out the window: I'm alive, I'm still alive. She leaned back, letting her eyes take in the man beside her. Sweat glistened on the black tattoo of a raven that seemed to fly over his biceps as he turned the steering wheel. Lines of sweat ran like silver through his black hair, which was smoothed back like a cap over his head and tied into a ponytail. She could sense his excitement, like a fever coming over him. It matched her own. He'd want sex now. That was why he was driving across the bluff, away from the others, to the spot where he'd taken her the first time. She ran her tongue over her lips--cracked and dry and wordless--and laid her head against the backrest. She stared into the night and at the lights glowing among the cottonwoods along the river below.
Tommy leaned toward her and swept one hand under the driver's seat. He lifted a flat, brown bottle, and, balancing it between his thighs, twisted off the top. The smell of whiskey floated toward her, and Lela felt her heart lurch as Tommy took a long drink. The light from the dashboard danced in the brown liquid.
"Lost the mirror," he said, swiping the back of one hand over his mouth. Then he tipped his head back and let the liquid pour into his throat like a fountain before he guided the pickup into the two--track that pitched downward off the bluff and into the grove of cottonwoods. The party was a half mile away, lights flickering like fireflies in the darkness.
"Hot shit." He guided the pickup through the trees, the tires scrunching the underbrush. "It's worth it. Gotta teach those bastards who's boss around here."
Looking straight ahead, Tommy pointed the pickup toward the open area in the cottonwood grove--a campsite close to the river. The headlights streamed over the dirt and clumps of grass, the circle of rocks and charred logs where someone had once built a fire. They lurched to a stop, and Tommy turned off the engine. The stereo went quiet, leaving only the sound of the wind whistling through the trees and the faint echo of the music in the distance. The yellow glow from the headlights hung in the air a moment, before dissolving into the darkness.
"What?" Tommy handed her the bottle, and she took a drink, wincing at the fire that shot down her throat and into her chest. He had looped an arm around her shoulder and was pulling her so tight that the rough edges of his army camouflage shirt, where he'd cut out the sleeves, scratched against her neck. He smelled of perspiration and whiskey and tobacco all at once in some kind of stew that made her feel slightly sick.
"Over there," she managed, her own voice coming back at her like an echo. She pointed into the darkness toward the campsite where, before the headlights had died, she'd glimpsed something small and unusual in the dirt. Something out of place, left behind and forgotten. Something different. Not one of the crushed beer cans or broken bottles that were strewn around the fire pit.
Lela shrugged herself free of Tommy's arm and leaned forward, squinting through the windshield. The object was hard to make out now, a shadow swallowed by other shadows. It could be a small animal, she thought, a puppy or a kitten. Maybe it was dead, but it might be hurt. Maybe a fox had gotten it. There were fox by the river, and coyote.
"Turn the headlights back on, okay?" she said.
She felt Tommy's fingers dig into her shoulder and pull her back. "Forget it. Ain"t nothing out there I want. You know what I want." His hand worked its way up under the back of her T--shirt and around, then gripped her breast, squeezing hard.
"Stop it, Tommy," she screamed, twisting herself free and grabbing for the door handle. She pushed the door open and plunged out into the hot darkness, which was tinged with moist, dead--fish smells from the river. Just as she started around the pickup, the headlights flashed on. She stopped. Now she could see the object a few feet away, except it wasn't any kind of animal.
It was a hand--fleshy palm, curled fingers--rising out of the ground, clawing at the dirt.
Her legs felt weak beneath her, as if they'd dissolved into liquid and could no longer support her. She stumbled back a couple steps, both hands pressed over her mouth to hold in the scream erupting in her throat, her gaze frozen on the hand. She tried to turn away, but it was as if the hand itself had fastened onto her and wouldn't let go.
The loud thwack of the pickup door was like a slap in the face, bringing her out of some nightmare. Tommy emerged from the shadows beside her. A wave of gratitude swept over her as his arm went around her shoulders. She felt him pulling her backward.
"Come on, Lela," he said, swinging her around, pushing her toward the pickup. "This ain't your business. You ain't seen nothing."
"What?" Lela tried to turn back, but he pushed her hard and she stumbled against the hood, her legs still jellylike. "We gotta call the police," she managed.
"You crazy?" He gripped both of her shoulders and leaned over her. The smell of whiskey on his breath made her want to retch. "You didn't see nothing, and you ain't calling nobody." His fingers bore into her muscles until she felt the tears pressing against her eyes.
"It's a body, Tommy," she managed. "We got no choice."
He released her, and she wobbled sideways against the pickup, trying to get her balance. In a flash, she saw his hand stretched over her, then felt the hard crash of his palm against her cheek. Her head jerked backward. She crumbled onto the ground, her balance gone now, as if some gyroscope inside her had been turned off. She dug her fingers into the dirt, collapsing into the pain that was spreading through her head.
Tommy was next to her, his black boots a few inches from her face. "Why'd you do that?" she said, feeling like a little girl again, dad standing over her.
"So you get it straight. You keep quiet. It ain't your business."
Lela managed to scrape through the dirt to the hard ground underneath, then push herself upright along the black boots, the baggy camouflage pants, the shirt with the jagged armholes, the sculptured arms. He was looking beyond her toward the party. She turned her head to follow his gaze. Headlight beams crisscrossed one another in the darkness. There was the pounding sound of the stereos, far away and faint as a memory. She could make out the dark blocks of pickups and the shadows flitting about, dancing maybe, getting laid, getting high, like every other Saturday night this summer. Everybody'd be stoned by the time she and Tommy got back. God, why'd they have to come to Double Dives in the first place?
She looked back at Tommy, his face striped with thin slats of shadow and light, and in his expression she saw a fear as raw as meat.
"You know who it is, don't you?"
"Shut up." He leaned toward her, fists dangling at his sides.
"You had something to do with it." Lela pushed on, her voice thick with tears. "You and the so--called rangers." She thrust her head in the direction of the party. "Like any of you was ever in the army. Whatd'ya do? Whack somebody on Captain Jack's orders? What? One of them guys you been hassling at the casino, just cause they went and got themselves jobs. You ever think maybe you oughta get yourself a real job, 'stead of hanging around doing Captain Jack's dirty work?"
At the edge of her vision, Lela saw the fist come up, but she was already darting alongside the pickup out of range. "Get in." He threw his fist toward her like a club, then started around the hood toward the driver's side. "We're getting outta here," he called over his shoulder.
Lela remained where she was, her head throbbing, Tommy shouting to hurry up. He was already behind the steering wheel, twisting toward the window, his face distorted. He pounded on the horn, sending out impatient blasts of noise that bounced about the cottonwoods and obliterated the sound of his voice. She pivoted around, surprised at the surge of strength within her, and started running, zigzagging and darting through the trees, taking a diagonal path toward the river. She didn't know where she was going, only that she couldn't get into the pickup. She couldn't pretend the hand wasn't there. It was in the dirt, trying to get out.
A thick heat had settled over the Wind River Reservation most of the summer. Now it was the third Monday in August, the Moon of Geese Shedding Their Feathers, according to the Arapaho Way of keeping time, and no sign of rain or cooler temperatures. One hot day had stretched into another, and today was no different. The sky was cloudless and was the crystalline blue of a mountain lake, with the sun still high in the east, glinting off the little houses that were set back from either side of Seventeen--Mile Road.
Father John O'Malley, pastor of St. Francis Mission, turned onto Highway 789 and mopped at the sweat that was prickling his forehead. He wished he'd thought to bring along a bottle of water, but he hadn't thought of anything, except that one of his parishioners could be dead.
The phone call had come about ten minutes ago. He'd just gotten to his office in the administration building. It was Art Banner, chief of the BIA police on the Wind River Reservation. Someone had reported a body at Double Dives. Not a body, exactly. A hand protruding from the ground. They were at the site now recovering the remains--a whole platoon of police officers, sheriff's deputies, investigators from the coroner's office and the Wyoming crime lab, and Ted Gianelli, the local FBI agent. Did Father John want to come over?
He'd felt as if a set of weights had dropped on his chest. Chances were it was a dead Arapaho. One of his parishioners, one of the brown faces that turned up at him during the homilies at Sunday Mass. Or someone else from the reservation, someone he knew. After eight years at St. Francis, Father John knew just about everybody.
And Double Dives was on the reservation, an empty, sagebrush--studded bluff that broke off into an oasis of cottonwood trees along the Wind River, not far from the place where the Arapahos had camped when they'd first come to the reservation more than a hundred years ago. Now the only people who went to Double Dives were the gangs that hung out there, drinking, drugging, racing pickups. Double Dives was wide open. Even the BIA patrol cars stayed away from the place.
"Any idea who it could be?" Father John had asked.
"So far, about all we know . . ." There had been a pause on the other end of the line, the noise of the chief gulping in air. "Poor bastard got shot in the head."
Father John had been barely aware of the clack clack noise of a keyboard, the whir of the printer coming from the office down the hall. His assistant, Father George Reinhold, was probably still working on the mission finances. The man had spent most of the weekend trying to balance the books.
"I'll be right over," Father John had told the police chief. He'd grabbed his cowboy hat from the coat tree inside the door, and, after calling to the other priest that he had an emergency, he'd slammed out the door and headed across the mission grounds. Walks--On, the three--legged golden retriever he'd found in a ditch a couple years ago, had bounded toward him, a red Frisbee clenched between his teeth, a hopeful look in his eyes.
"Sorry, buddy," Father John had said before he slid into the old Toyota pickup parked in front of the residence. He'd had to coax the engine into life--jiggling the key in the ignition, the growing sense of dread gripping him like a sharp pain. He'd had a busy couple of weeks: three funerals for starters, which meant wakes and visits to the families; counseling sessions almost every day; and meetings with the social committee, the youth group, the religious education teachers--endless meetings--plus practice every afternoon with the Eagles, the baseball team he'd started for the kids the first summer he'd been at St. Francis; and, in the evenings, the AA groups and the Gamblers Anonymous group he'd started last month.
Now he eased up on the accelerator and turned right onto Gas Hills Road. He drove several miles east into the bright sunshine. Around a curve, and then a left turn onto an open bluff studded with sagebrush and littered with bottles and cans and the carcass of an old truck. He bounced over the ruts, the windshield fractured by the sun, the line of utility poles running outside the window, and large, black birds circling overhead. Ravens, he thought, with purple--black feathers that shone in the sun and beaks that flashed like lightning against the sky.
At the edge of the bluff, the ruts pitched downward into a grove of cottonwoods along the river. Scattered about were several white BIA police cars that looked gray in the sunlight. Around the police cars were other vehicles--an ambulance, a couple of SUVs, a gray suburban with the blue insignia of the Fremont County Coroner on the sides.
Father John parked behind one of the police cars. Groups of officers, some in uniform, others in slacks and short--sleeve shirts, were milling about. A couple of officers moved through the trees, making a sharp, clicking noise. The instant he shut off the engine, he could hear the sounds of the river through the buzz of voices. He got out into a wedge of shade.
Chief Banner was already making his way over, the light glinting off the silver insignias on his navy blue uniform shirt, his thick head thrust forward like a bull working through the herd. "Coroner's still recovering the body," he said when he was a couple of feet away. "Slow business. Don't want to disturb any evidence. We're searching the area, taking photographs and making diagrams. Grave's real shallow, so whoever did it was most likely in a hurry. Looks like an animal had started working at the dirt and uncovered the hand."
Father John glanced beyond the chief at the circle of investigators about thirty feet away. Five men, down on their knees, hunched over the grave. They might have been praying, he thought, except they were jabbing and brushing at the earth with small tools that flashed in the sun. A couple of photographers stood over them, pointing cameras this way, that way.
"Anybody reported missing?" Father John asked. He was thinking that nobody deserved to be left in this desolate place.
The chief shook his head. "Doesn't mean somebody didn't go missing and nobody thought to make a report. All we got is a body, most likely a homicide victim."
Emerging from the trees was Ted Gianelli, the local fed, all two hundred and twenty pounds of him in tan slacks, white shirt, and blue blazer, looking as quick on his feet as the linebacker he'd once been for the Patriots. "Girl spotted the hand last night," he said, as if he'd been part of the conversation. "You know her? Lela Running Bull?"
"I know the family," Father John said. "Wayne Running Bull comes to the mission once in a while."
Banner let out a loud guffaw. "Whenever he's sober enough to find the keys to his truck."
Father John didn't say anything. Wayne had been having trouble staying on the wagon ever since his wife died in a traffic accident two years ago. The hardness, the absoluteness of her death, had been following Wayne like a ghost. Nonalcoholics never got it. Just stay off the bottle, they said, but they didn't get the way alcohol sopped up the pain, like a sponge, and made it possible to go on for a while--in the face of the absoluteness. It had been eight years since he'd had a drink, Father John was thinking--not since the year he'd spent at Grace House trying to recover--but there were still times when his defenses were down and the absoluteness came over him. Still times he'd been willing to trade almost anything for a whiskey.
And Wayne--Wayne was struggling to raise a daughter, Lela. The girl couldn't be more than fifteen.
"How'd she take it?"
"Spooked the hell outta her." Gianelli took in a breath and squinted into the sunlight, as if he'd caught a glimpse of one of his own ghosts. "She was out here drinking and raising hell with a bunch of kids. Spotted the hand coming up through the ground and went running to her aunt, Mary Running Bull. Lives over in the trailers on the highway with her two kids. You want to say some prayers?"
This was the reason Banner had called, Father John thought as he followed the chief and Gianelli over to the grave site. A couple of investigators moved aside, and he went down on his knees.
He stared down at the outlines of a figure in the dirt. There had been so many bodies. It never got easier. The sleeves of a plaid shirt had been brushed clear, misshaped hands flopped to the sides, the right hand bent upward toward the sun. The face looked fallen, already decomposing, with smudges of dust on the leathery skin. The right side of the head, above the ear, looked as if it had been bashed in, a mixture of hair and black, congealed blood. The eyes were open, locked in fear. The corpse didn't resemble anyone he knew, white or Indian, but it was difficult to tell. It hardly looked human.
"God forgive you your sins, whatever they may be." Father John spoke out loud, as if the man were alive, sitting across from him in the confessional. "God have mercy on your soul." He was aware of the quiet settling over the area, broken only by the sound of boots scuffing the dirt and the river lapping at the banks.
After a moment, he got to his feet. "Does Lela know who he is?" he asked, looking from Banner to Gianelli.
"Not that she's willing to admit." This from the fed. "Soon as we get an ID, I'll be talking to her again."
"She was pretty upset last night," Banner said.
"Where is she?" The girl was fifteen, Father John was thinking. She'd seen a human hand protruding from the ground. She might need to talk to somebody other than the law.
--from Killing Raven by Margaret Coel, copyright © 2003 Margaret Coel, published by Prime Crime, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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